How to build a perfect (IT) team

Updated: October 9, 2020

Just recently, I read a very nice article on vas3k (a website on my Greatest sites list, btw), most aptly and enticingly titled A Team - How to build awesome teams without bullshit. This actually triggered my intellectual glands, and I started pondering this subject with gusto.

What I found (missing) in the article is that it's mostly applicable to software development - and younger people in general, so I thought I might produce a more generic article along the same lines, taking into account a wider of view of the IT world. Using my personal experience, of course. So let's.

Teaser

Can a perfect team really exist?

I think it can. Because I was part of one! I believe I had the rare opportunity of working with some super cool people, and that what we had for a few years was a most splendid team effort, something I've not encountered before or since. Whenever I think of workplaces, I always compare to this one, and always wonder why other companies and organizations and divisions never managed to replicate what we had. The answer may be, because it was once-in-a-lifetime unique situation, and thus a matter of pure luck. But maybe it's also possible to derive a formula that will allow me and others to (re)create the perfect IT team. Let's begin.

Team members

Observations first, without any conclusions, because hindsight is camp:

On its own, this sounds idyllic. But the important thing is, results:

Manager

Here's a critical link. We also had a superb manager. Or if you ask me, the best manager I've ever had. She was a tough, no-nonsense lady, a mechanical engineer by vocation, with a strong sense of fairness, and a highly balanced personality. She was moderately tech-savvy - enough so you couldn't bullshit her - but she had excellent business understanding. Moreover, she had talent for spotting and then enhancing the unique traits and skills in each and every one of us.

While the ideal leader/manager remains the fictional character of Captain Jean Luc Picard, this manager comes a close second. She would vehemently defend us in management circles and shield us from bureaucratic nonsense. But she would also give us a good verbal lashing behind the scenes if we messed up. No one had any issue with it. We were all willing to risk it, take chances, make mistakes, admit those mistakes, and then also learn from them.

Manager

Picard, my favorite Star Wars character - and the ideal manager role model.

Later on, we got a new manager, who was more of a classic managerial stock. He was more deferential to his superiors, and he also loved buzzwords. This did not disrupt our team spirit, because we maintained complete autonomy over our work, wouldn't let anyone meddle, and we kept the strong dynamic among ourselves. However, organization wise, the atmosphere wasn't quite the same after that.

And so, there you have it. The ingredients of my perfect team cake. Now, let's try to abstractize it.

You want experts, doesn't matter what their passion is

What me life in the hi-tech sector has taught me:

Expert

An expert is an expert is an expert. It doesn't matter what it is.

Lesson to be had here, chaps: Work with (and hire) unique people with crazy passions, the payoff is better than the sum of buzzwords in their CV.

Diversity

Here, of course, the modern hypy trend is to treat people as propaganda pieces and align them on the diversity board based on arbitrary genetic traits. I find this abhorrent for many reasons, mostly because I thought we had left the dark ages behind. Work-wise, it's also the least useful way of actually achieving a meaningful result.

Diversity

If IT be a a box, then you need all sorts of tools.

Lesson to be had here, folks: Pluralism of thought is key to long-term success.

Management

Most people don't get to choose the manager. This is one of the reasons why so many teams fail, because they are simply handed an authority without any regard to their composition and unique traits. Most companies promote mediocre people to management, who then institute mediocre policies in their teams. In turn, this leads to resentment and reduced productivity.

Since there isn't that much freedom here, it's a little hard giving applicable advice. You only really choose managers when you interview for a new role (but sometimes, you don't have a choice, hey, mortgage), but even then, there can be a change in leadership three months in, and boom, you get a wild card.

IT employee reaction to new manager

Every IT employee's reaction when they hear they're getting a new manager.

However, if you do have some choice in hiring managers - whether you hire someone to work under you, you work in a company that has a democratic interview process that allows employees to interview their future overlord, or you are interviewing for a new job in a (new) company, then my lessons be as follows:

Lesson to be had here, gents and gentesses: Think Captain Jean Luc Picard.

Hiring process

As it happens, in my various roles, I had a chance to interview a lot of people. A LOT OF PEOPLE. I've probably interviewed more than 500 people in my career. I was exposed to the hiring process in six or seven companies, and everyone did it differently. One interview, two, five, aptitude tests, HR is or isn't in the loop, screening, whatever.

Having observed the process in such rich detail, I've discovered a few rather interesting things, and then of course, correlated my findings with the actual long-term success rate of initially successful candidates. In other words, I had my assumptions, misconceptions, preconceptions, bias, and judgment for each and every candidate. I also had a chance to see how effective the process is. Because there were also situations where people were hired despite my better judgment. The only downside is that I can't say much about candidates who were turned away for good, because I have no additional data points on their life beyond the brief encounters we had.

Interview

If you run out of ideas for your interview, you can always hook the candidate to a machine that goes ping.

Lessons in life: Hire non-negative people who are passionate about something in life. And if they can articulate that passion (any which way, words, pictures, diagrams, etc), they are bound to be good team members. But the manager will be the key in making those passions show.

Aren't you idolizing the situation?

One may say that a charming botanist will probably never make a good DB admin, no matter what. I say wrong. If a botanist shows up at your IT doorstep, that means they are probably interested in working in this field. If they know their stuff around flowers and seeds, they may come with amazing solutions to problems, because they could use natural algorithms and problem solving techniques from their previous domain, and apply them in a unique way to the IT world. A drone with 10-years of buzzwords is the most useless contribution to a company. Alas, many companies purposefully hire useless drones, because they just need slaves to fill in the gap on the proverbial rowing deck of the ship.

Extras: skillz that killz

Since this isn't exact science anyway, I thought I'd share a few more bits of data on my career team and hiring escapades. Again, they reflect my personal experience, but you may find them valuable. As always, there's a great deal of hindsight. But I do remember a lot of my findings and impressions from back then, and they still hold remarkably well.

Grumpy employee

A senior IT employee being told to do some bullshit task.

Conclusion

There you go. The recipe for the perfect IT team. Vas3K tried to do his article in a programmatic way, which makes sense, as he's a software guy. I did mine in a philosophical way, because I'm a physicist and I try to see bigger patterns in the chaos around me. I believe that passion and intellectual pluralism are the two most important things in bringing top people to a team. And then having a balanced manager in charge, who will not brownnose his or her way up the food chain. It's very tricky, especially the last part, because you need a whole string of good managers above to make this happen, again, which is why most work places suck.

In all likelihood, you won't ever be part of the perfect team. It's great fun when it does happen. So if you do want to try, hire passionate individuals, look for colorful world views, challenge your views and theirs. Good work will come out of that mix. Specific technologies and tools are the least important bit. Avoid negative people who ruin fun, and try - whichever way possible - not to have a boring yesman for a manager.

And we're done. Now back to your little Borg cube - or cubicle. Or open space.

P.S. All of the images used above are in public domain.

Cheers.

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